ICE agents are preventing immigrants from coming to court, report finds

Photo courtesy of IDP

Photo courtesy of IDP

By David Brand

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stationed themselves outside the Queens Criminal Courthouse Thursday morning, punctuating the contents of a new study on the negative impact that ICE arrests in and around courts have had on the justice system

Fewer and fewer immigrants are visiting court or accessing justice services across New York state because of the presence of ICE agents, according to the report, entitled Safeguarding the Integrity of Our Courts; The Impact of ICE Courthouse Operations in New York State.

The report’s authors surveyed judges, district attorneys, public defenders and lawmakers who described in detail how ICE’s presence has discouraged non-citizens from reporting crimes and appearing in court as defendants, victims and witnesses. The study was compiled by the ICE Out of Courts Coalition, which consists of more than 100 immigrants’ rights and criminal justice reform organizations from around New York state.

“This report documents in painstaking detail the calculated effect of federal interference in our state court system, disrupting our ability as a city to administer justice,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “The result is that we are all less safe.”

Johnson and other coalition members called on the state legislature to pass the Protect Our Courts Act, a measure that would bar ICE agents from arresting people inside courthouses or when they are on their way to or from court without a judicial warrant or court order. The bill has garnered support from Manhattan DA Cy Vance, Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez and Bronx DA Darcel Clark. Queens DA Richard Brown and Staten Island DA Michael McMahon have not publicly supported the bill.

The ICE agents at court Thursday stood near a blue Ford Explorer parked along 82nd Avenue, attorneys and other personnel told the Eagle. ICE did not respond to request for comment.

At least 33 people were arrested in and around Queens County courthouses last year, according to a January report by the Immigrant Defense Project. Only Kings County (aka Brooklyn) accounted for more courthouse ICE arrests, with 35, the report stated. Statewide courthouse ICE arrests increased by 1700 percent between 2016 and 2018, IDP reported.

ICE agents arrest a man outside the queens criminal courthouse in january. photo courtesy of queens law associates

ICE agents arrest a man outside the queens criminal courthouse in january. photo courtesy of queens law associates

The report drilled down into the specific influence of ICE’s courthouse presence, finding, for example, that Queens Family Court received a 72 percent decline in U Visa certification requests in 2018. U Visas are available to victims of crimes, especially related to domestic violence and human trafficking.

Manhattan Family Court experienced a 100 percent decline and Staten Island Family Court experienced an 83 percent decline.

ICE agents have even shown up inside Queens’ Human Trafficking Intervention Court, a diversion court for people charged with prostitution-related offenses, further discouraging immigratns from making court appearances, advocates say.

Survivors of sexual abuse are also reluctant to access services at the Queens Family Justice Center, said Urban Justice Center attorney Salar Rivani.

“About half the clients [screened] are undocumented and it has become a regular occurrence that they will ask about their risk of deportation from beginning a case in any of the New York courts,” Rivani said.

“I work at the Queens FJC and have had numerous clients ask me (a stereotypically “American” looking white woman) to walk them to the subway after our appointments because they are fearful of walking past the court alone,” added Urban Justice Center attorney Chelsea Whipp.

So-called “clean slate” events designed to enable people to clear open summons warrants have also experienced a decline in the last two years, the report indicates.

The Manhattan DA’s Office reported a 72 percent decline at its annual summons warrant-clearing event, from 380 in 2017 to 200 in 2018. A similar event in 2015 attracted 700 people.  

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Trial Division Deputy Chief said the decrease was “in part due to the fear that ICE will show up and round people up,” adding that, “although undocumented witnesses were always nervous about coming to our office prior to 2017, the concerns have increased with the current administration and there is a general fear of law enforcement due to their immigration status and fear of deportation.”

In addition, several DA immigrant affairs offices have reported decreases in the number of noncitizens who have contacted them.

Unlike Brooklyn and Nassau County, however, the Queens DA’s Office of Immigrant Affairs — created to assist immigrant crime victims — experienced an increase in phone calls in 2017 before decreasing in 2018. The report attributes the 2017 increase to enhanced awareness of the office and to specific concerns about President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration crackdown.

Community based organizations say they too feel the effect of ICE’s presence in around the courts.

“All New Yorkers should be able to access New York State courthouses without fear or intimidation by ICE,” said Make the Road New York member Yasmine Farhang. “Our community centers have seen an unprecedented increase in ICE raids from community members.”

“ICE’s predatory actions have resulted in increased fear within immigrant communities to seek the justice and protections they need, thus effectively shutting the courthouse doors to the most vulnerable within our community,” Farhang continued.